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Why Britain needs Christian politics Our divided country can be united by faith

(Photo LESLEY MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

August 8, 2019   5 mins

Even if the result of the Tory leadership race was never really in doubt, the campaign had some interesting moments. One came when Jeremy Hunt was grilled on his comments that, based on “matters of conscience”, he would prefer a narrowing of the window in which British women could have an abortion.

Hunt’s view seems grounded in his faith – he’s a devout member of the Church of England – but he was quick to clarify that he would not seek to change the existing law.

While he stuck to his principles, Hunt didn’t want to present himself as the “Christian” candidate for No 10. But what if he had? Could Britain, a country synonymous with secularisation and declining church attendance, embrace a politics grounded in religion? If Britain learns from the examples of its political and cultural kin, the US and Europe, the answer could be a strong “yes.”

Forty years ago this summer, American Evangelicals launched the Moral Majority, a religious organisation that put a face to the then-emerging Religious Right, the conservative Christian voting bloc that helped propel Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and even Donald Trump to office.

The British would hardly tolerate the kind of faith-based politics you see in the United States, where believers have been seeking to use state and national law to implement their ideas on everything from abortion to LGBT rights to prayer in schools. Surveys show that even religious Christian voters in Britain place low emphasis on these types of social issues, focusing instead on economic policies.

But there is an underestimated number of Britons who, I suspect, would be receptive of the type of faith that Hunt suggested; one that respects the separation of Church and State and doesn’t seek to impose sectarian views on society, but a faith-based politics motivated by religious beliefs to seek policies that promote freedom, rights and individual and public welfare.

In this regard, a political Christianity in the UK might look less like the Religious Right of America and more like the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. Since they emerged in the late 19thcentury, these Church-backed parties have played a major role in many nations: Christian Democratic parties or their successors currently lead ruling coalitions in Ireland, Germany and Austria, and have a major role in European Parliament as well.

Although Christian Democracy did not take hold in the UK the way it did elsewhere in Europe, there is, of course, a long history of entanglement between politics and religion in Britain. England had the most overtly political entry into the Protestant Reformation when Henry VIII ripped the Church of England away from Rome and declared himself its head. The acrimonious split between Catholics and Protestants led to everything from the Glorious Revolution to the Troubles of Northern Ireland. And the modern party system in British politics was heavily influenced by religion. As the think tank Theos, in its study of religion and voting in Britain, describes the history of party politics in Britain:

Britain never developed a tradition of Christian Democracy or a major Christian party because, by the time this happened in Europe, it already had three – Anglican Tory, Nonconformist Liberal, and Nonconformist and Catholic Labour.

As recently as the 1980s, the Conservative Party could be thought of as the “Church Party”. Religious-based politics has been the rule, not the exception, in Britain’s history.

The obvious objection is that religious politics, and to a large extent, religion itself, are just that: British history, fading relics of the country’s past. The UK is an increasingly secularised society. In some surveys, more Britons now identify as non-religious than as members of all the Christian denominations combined. And high-profile political figures have often treated their faith as a political liability (see Tony Blair’s secret Catholicism). In this environment, it might seem foolish to put much stock on a new religious politics. But the declining numbers may be just what is needed to spur the faithful to political action.

The Christian Democrats of Europe arose in the late 19thand 20th centuries in contexts of the rise of political liberalism (in its classical sense), and a growing hostility towards religion, and Christianity in particular, that came with it. Similarly, the US Religious Right arose in response to the changes of the 1960s and 70s – communism, the sexual revolution, the counterculture – that it saw as bringing about an end to a traditional Christian social order.

Whether or not this anti-Christian sentiment was real or merely perceived – after all, American Religious Right pioneers even railed against government encroachment on religion in the context of desegregation, a fact they’d like to forget now – it’s undeniable that the idea of a society turning against the Church motivated Christians to come out in force behind candidates who would champion their interests. The politics are different in Britain, but the Church is facing a crisis because of its steeply declining numbers and political clout, and this situation may just be ripe for a political response. Hunt did not want to present himself as the “Christian” candidate, but the potential for mobilising British Christians as voters is very real.

What’s more, the declining numbers among all branches of Christianity could actually foster unity between the disparate denominations that are individually struggling to survive in Britain. Their differences seem minor in comparison with the shared challenge of secularisation. Marginalisation and the threat of extinction are great motivators towards unity and action, and leaders could mobilise Christian believers into an effective voting bloc.

To do so, Christian politicians in the UK can draw from an American example; not the Religious Right, but the socialist Left. There is technically a Christian Democrat party in Britain (several of them, it turns out) in the same way that there is a Democratic Socialist party in the United States. But the US socialists did not gain any traction until some of their brightest or most promising stars, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, injected their beliefs and perspectives into the existing dominant two-party structure that governs American politics.

Similarly, Christian mobilisation in Britain would probably have to come from within one of the two major parties in order to be effective. Fortunately, British Christians tend to sit near the centre of the political spectrum, putting them in an ideal position to be courted by Tories and Labour alike. The key to a successful Christian political mobilisation would come down to sincerity and vision.

To return to the American example, “socialism” had been a dirty word in the US for decades. But in the past few years, it has rapidly emerged as a viable platform because of a few principled politicians such as Sanders, who won over audiences with his firmly-held convictions (Bernie was a socialist for decades before it was en vogue) and by offering a modernised form of their ideology as a solution to the economic divisions facing American society.

It’s hard to predict where such a figure might emerge for the UK’s Christian community. Hunt did not take up the “Christian” mantle in his political life. Perhaps he will in the future, or maybe another candidate will emerge to appeal to this community. Rising stars and political movements often move quickly: five years ago, Sanders was a backbencher from a small state and Ocasio-Cortes was a bartender. But when the moment came, they stepped up and channelled the discontent that existed among many Americans by presenting socialism as the answer to an America that seems to be increasingly driven by the ultra-rich and corporate interests at the expense of the working and middle classes.

Likewise, a political movement based on Christian values would be well poised to provide moral leadership on some of the most pressing issues facing the UK, such as tackling poverty and fixing the social safety net. An injection of organised Christianity into British politics could also be an asset for UK foreign policy, from strengthening ties with the United States to establishing a moral high ground in dealings with China (persecution of Christians – an issue that Hunt highlighted during his time as foreign secretary – has been a significant but underappreciated aspect of the current protests in Hong Kong).

Before the era of sectarian rivalries, Christianity was a source of unity within Britain and across Europe. Now that secularisation and social divisions trump any denominational differences, Christianity could again become a unifying force in the UK. Mobilised Christians could find at least limited common cause with the country’s Muslim and Jewish populations, tapping into a mutual Abrahamic heritage and co-operating to push back against secularisation and religious-based discrimination.

A modern political Christianity – morally principled but not divisive or exclusionary – could help the nation refocus and find a new sense of purpose and identity.

Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.

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